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Plan to Kill Union Sectors Prompts Concerns Over Future of CWA

July 25, 2019, 10:28 AM

A contentious series of proposals to dissolve parts of the Communications Workers of America is revealing internal tensions over how the union should face budgetary and growth concerns.

The plans would eliminate three of the union’s seven semi-autonomous industrial sectors. Sector membership and resources would be folded into the union’s geographic regions.

Union leadership says the adjustments are necessary to avoid duplication of work being done at the district level. Critics say the facts are being misconstrued and the changes could erode the union’s culture.

“At every CWA convention, Delegates consider amendments to the CWA Constitution to ensure that the structure of the union continues to serve the membership,” CWA spokeswoman Beth Allen said in an emailed statement. “We anticipate that the Delegates will carefully review and respectfully debate the proposed changes.”

The proposals, which face votes July 30 at the union’s 77th constitutional convention in Las Vegas, threaten to expose bitter differences in opinion over the direction of the labor organization.

The potential change at the CWA is yet another example of how budget tightening is leading union leaders to face a disgruntled membership. The Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the AFL-CIO are all locked in contract talks with some of their employee unions over money-saving measures.

Fighting the Proposal

Motions to eliminate two of the sectors came from convention delegates while a third came from the CWA Executive Council. The CWA’s five-member Constitution Committee recommends delegates vote to dissolve all three sectors. But some union members have voiced opposition to the plans.

The Printing, Publishing, and Media Workers Sector—one of the sectors slated for elimination—went so far as to launch a lawsuit against the union. The PPMWS leadership alleged the CWA was breaching the terms of a merger agreement with its plans to dissolve the sector. It sought to compel arbitration over the changes.

That lawsuit was quickly withdrawn after the head of the PPMWS was suspended by CWA President Chris Shelton six days after the complaint was filed.

Lisa Bolton, the head of the Telecommunications and Technologies Sector—which is also targeted for elimination—sent a brief letter to her sector’s local presidents and staff June 7 hinting at disapproval of the recommended changes.

“We are aware of the Constitution Committee’s preliminary report,” Bolton wrote. “We respect the democratic process; the Convention is the highest authority in our Union. Our work is valuable and we believe there is a clear misunderstanding of the scope of the work done in our office.”

Bolton didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Changes ‘Difficult’ but Necessary

The Constitution Committee addressed potential pushback in a preliminary report submitted to locals June 6. While change is tough, there will never be a perfect time to realign the union, it said.

“The Committee acknowledges that these changes are difficult,” the committee wrote. “Change is always hard. But change we must, in order to strengthen our Union and the representation of our members.”

Dissolving the three CWA sectors will require a simple majority vote of convention delegates. In addition to PPMWS and the Telecom and Tech Sector, the union’s Public, Healthcare, and Education Workers Sector also faces potential disbandment.

The Constitution Committee pointed to the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision in 2018—which prohibited public-sector unions from requiring nonmembers to pay fees for collective bargaining—as one reason the change is needed. That court decision “has the potential to cost the Union millions of dollars a year in lost revenue.” Public sector unions saw an exodus of fee payers after the Janus ruling, though courts haven’t further chipped away at union power in subsequent decisions.

Out of the three sectors within the CWA that may be reorganized, only the PPMWS has a merger agreement in place with the union. That merger agreement was renewed in 2015.

Many Identities, One Union

The rift over sector dissolution is largely rooted in the industry diversity in CWA’s membership. The union was founded by telephone workers in 1947 and has since grown to encapsulate a wide variety of industries, from health care to manufacturing to emergency services to journalism. Bloomberg Law employees are represented by the News Guild, a sector of the CWA.

Once an organized labor behemoth representing nearly a million workers in the 1980s, the CWA is a shadow of its former self. It now represents about 400,000 active workers. The union has shed tens of thousands of members due to the decline of its core industries and the offshoring of members’ jobs.

The breakup of AT&T in 1984 was a turning point for the union, according to labor expert Jeffrey Keefe. He’s a professor emeritus at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations.

“AT&T goes through a massive downsizing and the union begins to think that they’ve got to become more than a telephone union,” Keefe said. “They’ve really got to be thinking about other opportunities to organize. It’s hemorrhaging members.”

The union softened those losses by merging with smaller unions such as the Association of Flight Attendants, the News Guild, and the International Typographical Union. Those mergers led in large part to the CWA’s current makeup of industrial sectors and geographic regions.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is the only other major international union to organize itself by the industries it represents, according to Keefe. The Teamsters has two dozen divisions broken up by industries such as health care and freight.

The CWA’s Constitution Committee said the proposed changes weren’t a disparagement of its sectors’ effectiveness but an effort to restructure the union in the face of anti-labor attacks.

“Sectors are a vital part of our Union but we have to acknowledge that the Union is under attack,” the committee said in its preliminary report.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Wallender in Washington at awallender@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com